Vintage Looks at the Indianapolis 500

When first looking at Alfred Eisenstaedt’s photos from the 1939 edition of the Indianapolis 500, it’s the nostalgia that comes at you fast.

The race cars themselves really grab your eye. With their narrow bodies and open cockpits, the cars look as if they sprang directly from the imagination of a kid preparing for a soap box derby.

Then there’s the stands, which in one photo look as if they were hammered together by the Three Stooges the morning of the race.

The outfits are different too. One driver is so wrapped up in face coverings, not an inch of skin showing, that he could be the Invisible Man. The fans’ clothing, from the hats and ties to the undershirts, transport you to the late 1930s.

And what could be more old-school than the big celebrity at the event—not some reality TV star, but World War I flying ace Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, who later became an auto racer and president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The details in Eisenstaedt’s photos only enhance the nostalgia trip—the giant newsreel cameras, the sight of a driver at a pit stop drinking water from an actual glass rather than a squirt bottle, the sign that reads BLEACHER SEATS $1.

Of particular note to racing fans is the surface of the track, which was brick in those olden days. Today the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is still known as The Brickyard, though its racing surface is now paved with asphalt, except for three feet of brick at the start/finish line. Those bricks are kissed by the winners of the modern races as a ceremonial nod to the past—the history at Eisenstaedt documented in these photos.

The pictures tell the story of what appears to be an enjoyable day at the track—even if a share of the fans seemed to be napping on the infield. Eisenstaedt, while focussed on the scene more than the race, did capture the celebration of the winning driver, the legendary Wilbur Shaw. But he missed the sobering news of day, a mid-race crash that took the like of defending champion Floyd Roberts.

The story that ran in LIFE’s June 12, 1939 edition understandably focussed on the fatality, carrying the headline “145,000 Watch Sport of Death at Indianapolis Speedway.” LIFE illustrated the crash with frames of newsreel footage from one of those giant cameras.

LIFE’s story argued that the Indianapolis 500 was a Memorial Day tradition which needed to stop, and the writer’s tone suggested that the demise of auto racing was inevitable.

“American automobile racing had its heyday when the automobile and speed were new and thrilling,” LIFE wrote. “Its grueling tests and materials and innovations contributed mightily to automotive progress. But as speed became the possession of every motorist, as airplanes came along to outstrip the fastest automobile, car racing lost favor.” The story approvingly quoted columnist Bill Corum, who had written, “I can’t believe there is enough sport or enough scientific gain to justify the sort of Memorial Day Mrs. Floyd Roberts and her three children had yesterday.”

LIFE was wrong about the future of racing, which continued and thrived, despite a list of racing deaths that is now astoundingly long. Fans accepted crashes as a part of the sport. Famed Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray famously summed up the situation in 1966 with his pithy line in previewing another Indy 500 race: “Gentleman, start your coffins.”

While Eisenstaedt, more focussed on the characters around the track than straight sports photography, missed the fatal crash, he did capture the essence of the communal experience of race day, one that has been essential to keeping the sport alive.

A pit crew fixed a race car at the Indianapolis 500 in 1939.

Alfred Eisenstaedt/LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

The pit area at the Indy 500, 1939.

Alfred Eisenstaedt/LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

A driver at the Indy 500, 1939.

Alfred Eisenstaedt/LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Fans at the Indy 500 in 1939.

Alfred Eisenstaedt/LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

An aerial view of cars parked at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Indy 500 in 1939.

Alfred Eisenstaedt/LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, a top fighter pilot during World War I who later became an auto racer and president of the Indianapolis Speedway, at the Indy 500 in 1939.

Alfred Eisenstaedt/LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

A scene from the Indy 500 in 1939.

Alfred Eisenstaedt/LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Fans at the Indy 500 in 1939.

Alfred Eisenstaedt/LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Fans at the Indy 500 in 1939.

Alfred Eisenstaedt/LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Race teams prepared for the start of the race on the brick track of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, 1939.

Alfred Eisenstaedt/LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Cameras recorded the action at the Indy 500 in 1939.

Alfred Eisenstaedt/LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

A fan napped during the Indy 500 in 1939.

Alfred Eisenstaedt/LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Fans at the Indy 500 in 1939.

Alfred Eisenstaedt/LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Fans at the Indy 500 in 1939.

Alfred Eisenstaedt/LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

A driver drank a glass of water during a pit stop at the Indy 500 in 1939.

Alfred Eisenstaedt/LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Fans at the Indy 500 in 1939.

Alfred Eisenstaedt/LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Cars traversed the brick track at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the Indy 500 in 1939.

Alfred Eisenstaedt/LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Fans at the Indy 500 in 1939.

Alfred Eisenstaedt/LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

A man held up a scoreboard at the Indianapolis 500 in 1939.

Alfred Eisenstaedt/LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Fans at the Indy 500 in 1939.

Alfred Eisenstaedt/LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Fans at the Indy 500 in 1939.

Alfred Eisenstaedt/LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Spectators lucky enough to have found a place to park on the infield of the Indianapolis Speedway napped on the ground, while others in the background watched from the viewing platform at the Indy 500, 1939.

Alfred Eisenstaedt/LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

This rear-engine model race car was stopped by a broken valve early in the Indy 500 in 1939.

Alfred Eisenstaedt/LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Wilbur Shaw was doused with water after winning the Indy 500 in 1939.

Alfred Eisenstaedt/LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Photographs on Fabrics: What a Dreamy Invention!

Printing a photograph on fabric these days is no huge deal. Crafters can do it at home, and online shops make it easy to order, say, a batch of T-shirts with a baby picture on them for whatever birthday party is coming up.

But once upon a time printing photographs on fabrics was a gee-whiz accomplishment, and LIFE was there to have some fun with it.

“Until now anyone claiming to have seen a dinner dress decorated with life-size photographs of the wearer would have been met with breath-sniffing suspicion or clinical alarm,” LIFE said in its December 8, 1947 issue. “Today, however, such dresses can be made and photographs of everything from animals to pearl necklaces are being printed not only on dress fabrics but on upholster, pillows, ties, bathing suits and lingerie.”

The story was an occasion for LIFE photographer Nina Leen to creaTe some amusing pictures, such as the one of the man falling asleep on a pillow adorned with the face of actress Hedy Lamarr, or the one of the model wearing a dress covered with photographs of her own smiling face.

The photo in the story that presaged how this printing technology would actually be used in modern everyday life may well be the one of the woman whose shawl has a photograph of her dog. While LIFE’s story declared that ‘For the textile industry photographic fabrics are the big news of the year,” the printing of recognizable photos on clothes has, in modern life, been more for novelty products than conventional fashion.

It’s a common story of technology: it’s one kind of advance to be able to do something, and another to realize maybe you shouldn’t.

Model Norma Richter showed off a dress decorated with images of herself, 1947.

Nina Leen/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

A model wore a shawl featuring a photo of her terrier dog, sitting beside her.

Nina Leen/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Frank Sinatra pictures printed on huge bolts of rayon were created to cover pillows for adoring bobby-soxers, 1947.

Nina Leen/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

This wall hanging, showing linemen at work, was made for AT&T and hung in company’s New York boardroom.

Nina Leen/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

The Chrysler building appeared on the model’s tie as well as in the photo’s background, 1947.

Nina Leen/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

This process of converting a photo onto a fabric print began with the photograph of a flower, 1947.

Nina Leen/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

A textile factory manufactured fabric featuring the photograph of a rose, 1947.

Nina Leen/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Part of the process for making a photographic print on fabric, 1947.

Nina Leen/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

The fabric featuring the rose photo was ironed, 1947.

Nina Leen/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

This lampshade was made with a photo of a flower printed onto fabric, 1947.

Nina Leen/LIFE Photos/Shutterstock

The handbag was designed with a photo of a flower, 1947.

Nina Leen/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

A model wore a dress with a photograph of a rose printed on the fabric, designed by Martini to sell for about $70, 1947.

Nina Leen/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

M*A*S*H: Extraordinary and Timeless

The following is from LIFE’s new special issue M*A*S*H: TV’s Most Extraordinary Comedy, available at newsstands and online:

Each episode of M*A*S*H begins with the sound of an acoustic guitar, a B-minor chord strummed even before the first image appears. The subsequent theme song—and the opening images—have been in our heads for nearly half a century now: the back of Radar O’Reilly’s cap as he gazes up at the helicopters soaring in across the foothills; the names of principal cast members yellow-stenciled over the red-crossed rooftops of a tent city strung with loudspeakers; and, finally, the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, whose acronym has been familiar for more than 50 years, since the 1970 release of the film M*A*S*H, (which featured Sally Kellerman, who died on February 24, 2022, in the role of Margaret “Hot Lips” O’Houlihan) which two years later spawned the TV adaptation of the same name. The series endured for 11 seasons and concluded with the most-viewed episodic television event in history.

The theme song’s indelible melody was composed by Johnny Mandel, who wrote “The Shadow of Your Smile,” a song recorded by Frank Sinatra. But this tune, “Suicide Is Painless,” is his best-known work. He originally wrote it for the movie, which was drawn from a 1968 novel set during the Korean War, though it soon came to represent the Vietnam conflict, too, and the madness of war more broadly.

Thanks to the ongoing syndication of the television series, M*A*S*H has come to be viewed through a universal scrim of mosquito netting, a khaki-colored landscape of every war, with the olive drab wardrobe inevitably giving way to the olive-infused martinis. “Everything is painted green,” observes Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce, the hospital’s chief surgeon, played in the series by Alan Alda. “The clothes are green, the food is green—except the vegetables, of course. The only thing that’s not green is the blood.”

The helicopters, of course, were Army green, and the whap-whap of their rotors echoed the rhythmic rat-a-tat of the rapid-fire dialogue, which owed a debt to Groucho Marx, a hero of Larry Gelbart’s, the show’s cocreator and most renowned writer. Gelbart was the bard of Incheon. He made Hawkeye the king of the snappy comeback. 

Is that an incoming mortar? “The mortar merrier,” Hawkeye says. Should they toast fellow surgeon Frank Burns? “He won’t fit in the toaster,” Hawkeye exclaims. In the television iteration of M*A*S*H, Hawkeye channels a peacenik Groucho when he says: “I’ll carry your books, I’ll carry a torch, I’ll carry a tune, I’ll carry on, carry over, carry forward, Cary Grant, cash-and-carry, ‘Carry Me Back to Old Virginny,’ I’ll even hari-kari if you show me how, but I will not carry a gun.” 

There was other Marxist dialogue as well—Karl Marx, in this instance, not Groucho—for M*A*S*H was often tackling big ideas, though the lofty elements were almost always leavened by low comedy. As Corporal Max Klinger (Jamie Farr), in his never-ending bid to be discharged, tells his commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel Henry Blake (McLean Stevenson), “Sir, I have to confess: I’m a communist—an atheistic, Marxist, card-carrying, uh . . .”

“Bolshevik,” Blake barks.

“No—honest,” a defensive Klinger responds. 

The umbrage Hawkeye took, combined with the comedy he used as a coping mechanism, conspired to make M*A*S*H a chronicle of war not unlike The Iliad, every bit as epic in scope and timeless in theme. M*A*S*H was set in the 1950s, conceived in the 1960s, debuted in cinemas and on TV in the 1970s, and concluded, before an audience of more than 100 million people, in the 1980s. In the decades since, it has run in syndication without pause, making M*A*S*H—including the best-selling book in 1968 and the Oscar-winning movie in 1970—an indelible fixture in American popular culture. “Now that it’s off, it’s on more than ever,” Gelbart quipped in his introduction to the The Complete Book of M*A*S*H, published a year after the show ended.

Before M*A*S*H, television comedies set in the military had been laugh-tracked diversions from war, not reflections on its true nature: McHale’s Navy; Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.;and The Phil Silvers Show (popularly known as “Sgt. Bilko”) were comforting. Television’s longest-running reflection on World War II was Hogan’s Heroes, set in a grim German prisoner of war camp yet played for guffaws.

The 251 episodes of M*A*S*H spanned 11 seasons, which was eight years longer than the Korean War. When it concluded its initial run, an English professor at Clemson University calculated that the 94.9 hours of episodes—excluding credits and commercials—were nearly the same length of time required to watch the complete works of Shakespeare. One could quibble with the exact math, but one thing is certain: The appeal of M*A*S*H was its Shakespearean melding of drama and humor, high and low, heavy and light. The series embraced timeless themes of love, death, joy, tragedy, war, sex, and booze. Or as Hawkeye once put it: “Our motto is life, liberty, and the pursuit of happy hour.”

The doctors of the 4077th were understandably thirsty, charged as they were with a soul-numbing task: sewing up wounded soldiers and sending them back to the front to fight again. “All their efforts were futile in a way, in that their project, their duty, [and] their obligation is to heal wounds, put people back together again, in the middle of an overall effort, which is to destroy life,” producer Gene Reynolds, who died at age 96 in 2020, told the Oral History archivists at the Television Academy Foundation. “The absurdity, the drollness, the futility of their putting bodies back together again, and the overall effort is to destroy them. It’s existential.” 

That absurdity—restoring human life so that it might be destroyed—was a catch-22, and M*A*S*H owed a debt to the Joseph Heller novel that spawned the term, in which insanity was proof of sanity. It also paid homage to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, with its recurring slogan, “War Is Peace.” The conundrum faced every week by the show’s surgeons, and the injured soldiers who passed through their operating theater, resonated with much of the American public when the show made its debut on CBS in 1972, while the United States was hoping to broker a settlement in Vietnam by bombing the North Vietnamese. 

By the time the sets of M*A*S*H were struck from the lots in 1983 and re-assembled in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, the Vietnam War was long over, but more conflicts were to come. Alan Alda noted that the series was unfortunately evergreen, because war was likewise timeless. “As M*A*S*H goes into reruns,” Alda noted, “the Vietnam War is going into reruns, too.” That same year, 1983, the U.S. invaded the island nation of Grenada. Meanwhile, 241 U.S. Marines and military personnel died when their barracks were bombed in Beirut. 

M*A*S*H achieved something remarkable: It was of its time, yet it remains relevant for all time. “Wherever they come from,” Hawkeye once said of the casualties on his operating table, “they’ll never run out.” And so M*A*S*H has stayed ever vital. It will—to paraphrase Hawkeye—carry on, carry over, carry forward. 

Here is a selection of photos from LIFE’s new special issue M*A*S*H: TV’s Most Extraordinary Comedy.

Cover image by MPTVImages.com

Sally Kellerman, who died on February 24, 2022, played Margaret ‘Hot Lips” O’Houlihan in the 1970 film version of M*A*S*H.

Moviestore/Shutterstock

Frank Burns (Robert Duvall), Margaret O’Houlihan (Sally Kellerman) and Trapper John (Elliott Gould) in the film version of M*A*S*H, 1970.

20th Century Fox/Aspen/Kobal/Shutterstock

Director Robert Altman on the set of his 1970 film M*A*S*H.

20th Century Fox/Aspen/Kobal/Shutterstock

The poster for the 1970 movie M*A*S*H.

: Universal History Archive/Shutterstock

The television version of M*A*S*H starred Alan Alda as Hawkeye Pierce and featured Gary Burghoff, the lone carryover from the cast of the film, as Radar O’Reilly.

Steve Schapiro/Corbis/Getty

Radar (Gary Burgoff) laughed with Lt. Col. Henry Blake (left, played by McLean Stevenson, who left M*A*S*H after the third of its 11 seasons).

CBS Photo Archive/Getty

Behind the scenes at the filming of the final episode of M*A*S*H, which aired in 1983, the cast buried a time capsule. “Rather than leaving a time capsule in Korea, we should leave one on the lot,” said Jamie Farr (fifth from left), who played Cpl. Max Klinger. “We found a great place near the commissary.”

Paul Harris/Getty

The surviving cast and creators of M*A*S*H gathered in 2002 to celebrate the show’s 30th anniversary.

Randy Holmes/20th Century Fox/Kobal/Shutterstock

Easter Fashion Fun: Making Clothes For the Whole Giant Family

The April 7, 1952 issue of LIFE featured one of the magazine’s most iconic covers—a photograph of a young Marilyn Monroe at a moment when the young star was becoming, as the magazine announced, “the talk of Hollywood.” This was a time before televisions were commonplace, and the Internet was obviously nonexistent, which meant this cover would have landed in America’s mailboxes like the proverbial bombshell.

For additional context on life in the early 1950s, consider another story in that same issue of LIFE, one which was much squarer and also gauged to the issue’s publication date in early April. The story was about the O’Neil family of Boston. They had ten daughters, and they made their own matching clothes for Easter.

“Operation Easter took over the whole house of Mr. and Mrs. Daniel O’Neil,” LIFE wrote. “There, amid the urgent clatter of an electric sewing machine and the psst of wet fingers on hot irons, the entire family was engaged in the monument task of turning out almost identical Easter outfits.”

Wearing new clothes on Easter is a centuries-old tradition meant to symbolically honor the resurrection of Jesus. For the O’Neils, honoring that tradition required collaboration among the family members, who ranged from ages 3 to 19. “Mrs. O’Neil sewed, the biggest girls ironed, the middle-sized girls attached buttons and the smallest girls attached basting thread and retrieved dropped thimbles,” LIFE wrote.

The O’Neils had this is common with Marilyn: they were in show business too, in their way. “The Ten O’Neil sisters,” as they were known, regularly appeared in Easter parades in matching outfits and gave musical performances. The1952 burst of outfit-making documented by LIFE photographer Nina Leen was “in preparation for a weekend migration to New York where the O’Neils were scheduled to appear on an Easter television program.”

The O’Neil sisters continued their public appearances well into adulthood. Their website includes a photo from the Boston Herald in 1983 of them marching arm-and-arm in Boston’s Easter parade. The website also includes a page which at the top has the Marilyn cover and their family portrait in matching outfits side-by-side, showing there is more than one way to make a memorable picture.

Mrs. O’Neil pinned up hems on all ten of her daughters’ dresses in preparation for Easter, 1952.

Nina Leen/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

The O’Neil girls’ hats and gloves were inspected by the youngest sisters in preparation for Easter, 1952.

Nina Leen/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

One of the sisters, Jane, ironed a skirt while her mother and sisters worked another suit in preparation for Easter, 1952.

Nina Leen/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Cutting cloth for the Easter suits, Mrs. Daniel O’Neil and her daughters working from a paper McCall’s pattern, 1952.

Nina Leen/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

The O’Neil family readied for Easter, 1952.

Nina Leen/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

A little O’Neil admiring her four big sisters in their new Easter finery, 1952.

Nina Leen/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

The O’Neil family readied for Easter, 1952.

Nina Leen/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Daniel O’Neil with one of his ten daughters in a new Easter outfit, April 1952.

Nina Leen/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

The O’Neil family modelled their new Easter wear, April 1952

Nina Leen/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Are City Dogs Better Off Than Country Dogs?

Many decades ago LIFE took a bold stance by suggesting that dogs in the city were better off than those in the country. Yes, the magazine actually put forward the idea that dogs thrived more living in cramped apartments than in places where they could frolic through fields and streams.

“Deprived of wide open spaces, they are just as happy and healthy as country dogs and live years longer,” declared a headline in LIFE’s April 3 ,1944 issue. The article used as its chief source a book called How to Raise a Dog in the City and In the Suburbs by Dr. James Kinney, which claimed that city dogs lived two to three years longer than country dogs. The story offered this rationale for the disparity: “City owners lavish more affection on dogs than country owners, not because city dogs are more lovable but because they are more often underfoot. A dog thrives as much on affection as it does on wide-open spaces.”

All these decades later, some still argue that city dogs are better off. A recent article on Vetstreet points out in the country, dogs there are more likely to roam unleashed, which means that they get hit by cars more often. Country dogs also encounter more types of parasites. And if a dog has some intestinal disease, the city owner is more likely to notice, because the evidence will be left in on a carpet rather than amid the bushes.

One counter-argument for country life is that dogs are simply happier there. According to a study reported on in Psychology Today, city dogs are much more fearful and anxious than their country cousins. The study found that city dogs were 45 percent more likely to be afraid of strange people, and 70 percent more likely to be afraid of strange dogs.

Also, the pictures of city dogs that LIFE photographer Nina Leen in 1944 to illustrate the story sometimes run counter to story’s premise—or, to put it more simply, some of the dogs don’t seem all that happy as they go on their walks in New York. The grumpiest-looking dog belonged to actress-model Joan Caulfield, whose West Highland terrier named Witty attempted to hide away in the hedges. Just about all the dogs that Leen photographed belonged to public figures, such as actors Frederic March and Ruth Gordon, but it’s not clear that they benefitted from the reflected glory.

Wherever you live, there’s plenty of evidence that owning a dog is good for the owner, both mentally and physically. In other words, what studies show most clearly is that people and dogs are better off with each other, and that’s true anywhere in America.

Actor Fredric March w.alked his cocker spaniel in the rain, 1944.

Nina Leen/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Actress Joan Caulfield briskly walked her West Highland terrier Witty, down Fifth Avenue in New York City, 1944.

Nina Leen/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Actress Joan Caulfield reached deep down behind a hedge to extract her West Highland terrier Witty, while trying to take him for a walk in New York City, 1944.

Nina Leen/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Actress Joan Caulfield lifted her West Highland terrier Witty, out from behind a hedge, while trying to take him for a walk, 1944.

Nina Leen/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Artist Earle Winslow, with a painting under his arm, struggled to control his stubborn Irish setter, New York City, 1944.

Nina Leen/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Artist Earle Winslow (right) showed his painting to a friend while struggling to keep his Irish setter under control, New York City, 1944.

Nina Leen/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Artist Earle Winslow, with a painting under his arm, struggled to keep his Irish setter under control, New York City, 1944.

Nina Leen/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Model Mimi Berry walked her cocker spaniel, who carried a package for her, 1944.

Nina Leen/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Metropolitan Opera singer Lauritz Melchior with his wife and their Great Dane, 1944.

Nina Leen/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Sportscaster Bill Stern read a newspaper as his Chesapeake Bay retriever sniffed a sidewalk grate, New York City, 1944.

Nina Leen/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Ed Sullivan, then an entertainment columnist before he became a television host, brought his black Scottie dog to a fenced-in area on the street in New York City, 1944.

Nina Leen/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Conductor Artur Rodzinski and his wife with their poodle at 57th St. and 5th Ave in New York City, 1944.

Nina Leen/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Actress Joan Roberts, wearing her costume for the musical Oklahoma, walked Goggles, her English bulldog, during the show’s intermission, New York City, 1944.

Nina Leen/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Actress Joan Roberts, wearing a costume for the musical Oklahoma, walked her English bulldog Goggles during intermission, 1944.

Nina Leen/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Actor John Boles coaxed his stubborn schnauzer puppy to jump a concrete barrier New York City ,1944.

Nina Leen/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Actress Margaret Webster’s two Cairn terriers checked out a cat perched in the window, New York City, 1944.

Nina Leen/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

William F. Schlemmer, of Hammacher-Schlemmer, walked his Yorkshire terriers, New York City, 1944.

Nina Leen/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Comedian Jimmy Durante walked his Irish setter in Times Square, 1944.

Nina Leen/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Author Fannie Hurst enjoyed the jumping antics of her Yorkshire terrier Orphan Annie, New York City, 1944.

Nina Leen/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Actress Ruth Gordon walked her black poodle, New York City 1944.

Nina Leen/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Actress Cornelia Otis Skinner, clad in a sheared beaver fur coat, walking her dogs in New York City, 1944.

Nina Leen/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Music conductor Andre Kostelanetz with his sheep dog Puff, New York City, 1944.

Nina Leen/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

This Maltese poodle/wire-haired terrier mix called Pooch was cuddled by its owner, former Metropolitan Opera singer Thalia Sabaneev, New York City, 1944.

Nina Leen/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Former Metropolitan Opera singer Thalia Sabaneev’s Maltese poodle/wire-haired terrier mix called Pooch was featured on the cover of LIFE magazine’s issue of April 3, 1944.

Nina Leen/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

A boy read newspaper comics while his leash-tethered mutt waited, New York City, 1944.

Nina Leen/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

More Than Obi-Wan: Alec Guinness Before Star Wars

Modern audiences know Alec Guinness best from a role he assumed toward the sunset of his career, when he played Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars movie that came out in 1977. The veteran actor, born on April 2, 1914, was the man who first explained to movie goers the ways of The Force—an awesome burden that he carried off with avuncular ease.

While Guinness seemed to exude wisdom and warmth so naturally in the role of Obi-Wan, he always made his actor’s work look easy, no matter what sort of character he was playing. His broader career was defined by his ability to disappear into a role. He was described as “acting’s preeminent master of disguise” by Turner Classic Movies, and fellow British actor Peter Ustinov once called Guinness “the outstanding poet of anonymity.”

LIFE ran its first feature on Guinness to celebrate his reputation-making performance—or should we say, performances—in the dark comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets, where he played nine members of the same family. The story is about an avaricious man who, ninth in line for a dukedom, kills those ahead of him in the line of succession one-by-one. LIFE praised Guinness for playing “aristocrats of all ages, many professions, both sexes—and also was the model for the effigy of a deceased ancestor.”

Guinness continued to demonstrate rare versatility throughout his career, starring in classic comedies such as The Lavender Hill Mob (1952) as well as dramatic epics such as The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). LIFE captured memorable images of Guinness when photographer Peter Stackpole visited him on the set of Our Man in Havana (1957), an adaptation of a Graham Greene novel. LIFE photographers were also there when Guinness performed on stage at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, Canada, and gave another stage performance in Under the Sycamore Tree.

An unusual number of LIFE’s pictures feature Guinness backstage, putting on makeup. That emphasis tells much about reputation as the ultimate chameleon. He was an actor who could make himself at home in any costume, including those famous Jedi robes.

Alec Guinness, wearing a toupee, on a movie lot, 1951.

Alfred Eisenstaedt/LIFE pictures/Shutterstock

Alec Guinness earned early notice for his portrayal of Fagin in Oliver Twist, 1948.

Nat Farbman/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Alec Guinness as an army general, one of the nine roles he played in Kind Hearts and Coronets, 1949.

Mark Kauffman/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Alec Guinness as Lady Agatha,, one of the nine roles he played in the movie Kind Hearts and Coronets, 1949.

.Mark Kauffman/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Alec Guinness in one of his nine roles in Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949).

Mark Kauffman/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Alec Guinness in one of his nine roles in the 1949 film Kind Hearts and Coronets.

Mark Kauffman/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Alec Guinness taking off his makeup during a production of Under the Sycamores, 1952.

Cornell Capa/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Alec Guinness put on makeup in his dressing room for the play Under the Sycamore Tree, 1952.

Cornell Capa/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Alec Guinness put on makeup in his dressing room for the play Under the Sycamore Tree, 1952.

Cornell Capa/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Actor Alec Guinness put on makeup in his dressing room for the play Under the Sycamore Tree, 1952.

Cornell Capa/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Alec Guinness relaxed in his dressing room during break from his appearance in Under the Sycamore Tree, 1952.

Cornell Capa/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Alec Guinness in an art gallery, 1952.

Cornell Capa/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Alec Guinness sat alone by a lake in a park, 1952.

Cornell Capa/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Alec Guinness put on theatrical makeup at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, Canada, 1953.

Peter Stackpole/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Alec Guinness put on theatrical makeup at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, Canada, 1953.

Peter Stackpole/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Alec Guinness during rehearsals at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, Canada, 1953.

Peter Stackpole/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Actor Alec Guinness played Richard III at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, Canada, 1953.

Pater Stackpole/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

(Seated L-R) Unidentified, Alec Guinness, Maureen O’Hara, Ernie Kovacs and unidentified; (Standing L-R) Noel Coward and Graham Greene on set of ‘Our Man in Havana,’ 1959.

Peter Stackpole/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Alec Guinness and actress Maureen O’Hara on the set of Our Man in Havana, 1959.

Peter Stackpole/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Actor/playwright Noel Coward (right) chatted with author Ernest Hemingway (left) and actor Alec Guinness on the set location at the author’s favorite hangout, Sloppy Joe’s Bar, during a break in filming the movie Our Man in Havana, 1959.

Peter Stackpole/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

Alec Guinness (center left) arrived for funeral service for actor Gary Cooper, 1961.

Grey Villet/LIFE Pictures/Shutterstock

More Like This

arts & entertainment

The Ageless Rolling Stones, Through the Ages

arts & entertainment

LIFE Said This Invention Would “Annihilate Time and Space”

arts & entertainment

LIFE Gushed That This Actress Was “Paulette, Hedy and Ava, All in One”

arts & entertainment

Garfield: The Story Behind the Coolest of the Cats

arts & entertainment

“The Synanon Fix” in LIFE

arts & entertainment

LIFE’s Images of Classic Broadway